July 9, 2021Living Curiously - An Alumni Update with Justin Charney

Hi Aberdeen Hall, this is Justin; I want to start by thanking you for taking a moment to hear an anecdote about my life since graduation and some lessons picked up along the way. The ones I will share have been instrumental in guiding my journey. My hope is they might do the same for you.

Your challenge is to focus on one concept mentioned (or one that this article reminds you of) for the next week and write down what you discover about yourself. For bonus points, determine a new action or habit to support the area(s) of discovery and start it today.

My first lesson is about finding your ladder. The world is filled with ladders; your friends, parents, teachers, and even people you meet in passing have them, but they are not kept in the garage. These ladders are the metaphorical road maps of our lives that are supported by a foundation made of meaning and purpose. The problem is, without knowing our intrinsic motivation, we find ourselves climbing others ladders only to realize halfway up that the foundation cannot support our needs and desires. Worse yet, we might be stuck on the ladder out of loss aversion or other fears, but what if we could recognize this or avoid it altogether? By assessing our strengths, pursuing what inspires us, and reframing our goals by first considering why we have them, maybe our work can be more fulfilling because the ladder we choose to climb rests on a foundation that empowers us.

My life is about exploration and designing solutions that improve the quality of life for our world. Finding my ladder and remembering its foundation with every step I take has been the most influential decision-making tool leading up to and during my university experience. I currently study bioengineering at McGill University. It is a field with extensive engineering principles and biology at its core, and tremendous opportunities to do work that I find meaningful. However, without knowing what drives me, I might have fallen into the trap of choosing a “safer” path that was not a good fit, which has been the case for many of my peers that have followed socially accepted paths and left them unfulfilled.

The second lesson is one I am still learning, and it is about creating a balanced life. According to the 10,000-hour rule, 10,000 hours is required to become an expert at something. Start now; work harder and smarter than everyone else. At least that is what I thought until the compounding effects of sleep deprivation, stress, and diminishing connections with those I care about made me question whether it was worth the costs. Of course, for most of us, the answer is no, and there is good evidence to suggest a balanced approach to life will lead to more success over time. The reason is, beyond providing more domains to experience growth, it can also enable knowledge overlap to create novel solutions that overspecialized individuals cannot conceive.

One way I have pursued balance is by having hobbies outside of school. Recently, I have spent most of my free-time practising machine learning and AI. Over that past several months, I have implemented algorithms that detect bullying through messages, classify skin cancers, and even write poems like Robert Frost. Because of my interest in this area, I will be doing research this summer using deep learning to identify and fix microcracks in tooth enamel. However, without taking the first step to experiment with something I was curious about, this never could have happened. Therefore, I encourage you to try many different activities to see what perks your interest. Moreover, you could make a radar chart with areas of your life to determine where you are out of balance and take action in areas you want to improve.

As I look towards the next steps on my ladder, I hope to take each with a sense of balance and purpose by remembering why I started the ascent. For now, it is hard to say where they might lead, and frankly, I am focused on enjoying the journey and letting the rest fall into place. But if there is one thing I wish for, it is to see all of you climbing alongside me.

Until then, live curiously and stay supple.


Justin Charney (AHPS 2019, co-Valedictorian)
McGill University, Bioengineering

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